It’s kind of an important game for several reasons: it’s the first between the two teams. It’s a budding rivalry. And, most importantly, it’s the first of back-to-back games between the two squads. Because Atlanta United is in fourth in the Eastern Conference and Orlando City sixth, if either team can sweep the next two, it will go a long way toward solidifying one of the six available playoff spots.
Alicia DelGallo, a sports reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, answered five questions ahead of Friday’s game. DelGallo covers Orlando City SC and professional soccer nationwide. Her work also has appeared on ESPN.com, MLB.com, in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Baltimore Sun. Alicia is a Massachusetts native and UCF journalism graduate. She previously covered Orlando’s professional hockey and arena football teams, high school sports and various NBA and college football events, including the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship between Clemson and Alabama.
Here are the five questions:
1. Does Orlando City consider Atlanta United as a rival?
A: There’s no denying a natural, geographical rivalry. So, in that sense, yes. Atlanta is Orlando City’s only regional rival.
But, Lions coach Jason Kreis and most of the players look at it a bit differently and believe a rich history between two teams is needed for a true rivalry. For them, it’s not something automatic but built overtime, such as with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in USL and NYCFC in the teams’ short MLS histories.
Atlanta has everything needed to become a rival – proximity and shared personnel, including as former Orlando City general manager Paul McDonough and players Mikey Ambrose and Harrison Heath – but it is not there yet.
2. How will Orlando City try to replace Cyle Larin’s production?
A: There is no replacing Cyle Larin’s production. What Orlando City can do is try to mitigate the loss using multiple players.
Carlos Rivas is still there, and his speed has troubled defenders this season. The Lions typically use some combination of Giles Barnes and Kaká to help him on the attack when Larin is gone. Kreis also has options to pull young, developing attackers up from Orlando City B for fresh legs late in the game. He’s recently turned to Richie Laryea, another Canadian striker, and UCF product Hadji Barry.
3. What is Kaka’s role on the team now?
A: Kaká’s role is the same as it has been the past two season: captain. When he his healthy, he is the leader on the field and the main creative force operating in the midfield. He has played in various positions depending on injuries throughout the team, including as a true No. 10, on the left wing and as a second striker.
4. What effect has Jonathan Spector had on the defense?
A: Jonathan Spector came in and took ownership of Orlando City’s back line. Last year, the Lions’ veteran centerbacks frequently suffered injuries, forcing young, inexperienced players to step up. While there were some admirable defensive performances, the final result was a defense that allowed a league-high 60 goals by the end of 2016. Now, the back line has an anchor, a reliable veteran who can work well in any centerback pairing – and his name is Spector.
5. What is the matchup to watch?
A: I’m going to go a different route with this and say the matchup to watch is a goalkeeper battle, Brad Guzan versus Joe Bendik. OK, they aren’t actually matching up against each other, but Guzan is a U.S. men’s national team veteran coming off a Gold Cup stint and Bendik is a national team hopeful who was left off the final Gold Cup roster. Seeing how both perform in this match will be interesting.